Diversity Debates Over Canada’s New Cabinet

Justin Trudeau unveiled his cabinet today, making good on his promise to have equal male and female representation. He missed it by one, with 15 females in a 31 member cabinet. Today, when asked about it, he had a great reply:

It’s a great rhetorical flourish, but underlying it is the notion that we’ve waited far too long to see the diversity of real life reflected in government. There are even two aboriginal cabinet members out of a record eight aboriginal MPs.

It turns out that a lot of assholes—white males, the lot of them—are upset at this turn to diversity, grunting about merit while ignoring the fact that merit has rarely figured into cabinet. One of them—The Walrus’s editor, Jonathan Kay—even suckered me in for a time with his arguments about how class is the real frontier in diversity:

While traditional metrics of racial and gender diversity remain important considerations when building a government or professional organization, I’d argue that the most profound schism in Canadian society isn’t skin colour, gender or sexual identity. It’s social class…

As an editor, I have the privilege of working with all sorts of interesting and influential Canadians. On paper, many of these people are “diverse”—men, women, black, white, straight, gay, trans, cis, Jew, Christian, Hindu, Muslim. Yet scratch the surface, and you find a remarkable sameness to our intellectual, cultural, and political elites, no matter what words they use to self identify. In most cases, they grow up middle-class or wealthier, attend the same good schools, and join the same high-value social networks.

The first problem with Kay’s argument is that it doesn’t celebrate the momentousness or the momentum of today’s cabinet diversity. Of course this isn’t enough, but it’s something; something that moves us in the right direction. But Kay doesn’t seem to actually want diversity, he just wants to criticize today’s cabinet appointments from a less reprehensible angle.

I was fooled until I read a follow-up article—also in The Walrus—by Karen K. Ho titled Meritocracy Is a Lie, first addressing the meritocracy issue:

If we really want to get technical, it’s important to acknowledge that notions of merit have never stopped previous governments from determining the make-up of their cabinets based on a variety of criteria. As Vice Canada parliamentary reporter Justin Ling has pointed out, “regionalism, parliamentary experience, who they endorsed for leader, [and] which MP they beat” are all considered valid reasons for the job, and gender is not. In effect, quotas meant to be fair representations of a variety of different Canadian constituencies have been around for almost fifty years…

This whole debate is infuriating because the issue of meritocracy only seems to come up when the capital-e Establishment, mostly a population of well-connected white men, find themselves suddenly at the slightest risk of losing their historical stranglehold on power.

And then, addressing her own editor’s seemingly laudable class-based critique, she says:

[W]omen and people of colour, including Canada’s Aboriginal population, are more likely to experience being part of a lower class than white men. We know this from information gathered by Statistics Canada. Having more women and people of colour involved, be it in politics, business, art, activism or journalism, means you have a higher likelihood of encountering people with experiences of either being lower class or treated as lower class. Perspective is a powerful thing, especially in the halls of power, where it appears to have been historically in very short supply…

For many women and people of colour, the endless fight isn’t worth it. They quit before rising to the ranks of editor, manager, partner, designated candidate or MP. In this sense, a “meritocratic” bias simply increases the likelihood that those who rise to the top will be the same people who started out from closest to the top in the first place, as they have the least to lose and the least to overcome.

Today’s cabinet diversity is still woefully insufficient, but it’s a start.

Respect: Two Types

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”

and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.

There’s so much at work here in this simple post by Austistic Abby.1 It makes me think of Ferguson. It makes me think of the blindness of privilege. It makes me think of so many dynamics of power, and those who have it, and those who don’t. It makes me a bit angry, and a bit sad.

  1. I had to search for the text in this tweet‘s image to find the source. Attribution, like much on the web, is pretty broken. At least search still works. 

Justice Begins in the Negative

My initial thoughts towards the Occupy Wall Street movement were like lots of people: “Okay, I see that you’re mad about something, but do you have anything constructive to say?” It seemed as though they were against the rubbish financial system, but what else?

We always want critique to be constructive rather than filled with inarticulate rage. And yet, maybe it’s too much to expect that immediately. Kester Brewin helped me see the problem with this:

[I]t is part of the corruption of power to insist that any protest or critique against the dominant system comes fully formed. When you’re being beaten down, it is entirely valid to simply scream in frustration, without any idea what changes need to be made. – Don’t Blame Bankers | What Alternatives Are ‘Occupy’ Proposing?

Spot on.

Democracy & Responsibility (to Love)

It’s election season in Canada, which means it’s time to decide which distant oligarch is slightly less distasteful to us in the charade that many believe to be democracy. When Winston Churchill described democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried,”[ref]Decontextualized quotations fascinate me. In its context, Churchill is obviously defending democracy against its detractors, softening this frequently deployed quote as folk wisdom with the qualifiers it has been said and from time to time. The original quote more fully reads: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” See the Winston Churchill Wikiquote page.[/ref] I hear him differently than most, who assume that it’s appropriate to describe the system of governance that we live under as democracy.

I instead mentally paraphrase Churchill’s oft-misued quote as “We have this form of government that’s definitely better than oppressive and/or totalitarian regimes, but it falls incredibly short of the classic democratic ideal.” If you aren’t hearing bitching and moaning about our form of government as “chaotic” or “disruptive” or “unworkable,” then it isn’t democracy.[ref]The first canonical attempt at democracy in Athens was routinely called that, and it only included land-owning males as “the people.”[/ref] True democracy is rule by the people, and not just the people you would expect to be capable of having a say. Democracy is the breathtaking ideal that everyone, no matter their race, gender, religious affiliation, or other definable characteristic, would have full and equal say in their governance. This is ennobling to everyone, but terrifying for the rich and powerful, who would then have their privileged place of power and influence threatened by so much unworthy rabble.

True democracy is therefore always deemed “impractical” and systems that subvert actual democracy are suggested in order to make democracy “workable” and “practical.” The dark genius behind all these attempts is that they contain some features that resemble democracy, and appropriate the name democracy to this only minimally realized system.

Of course the feature that deserves the most notice is representative democracy. This is the system our Social Studies classes taught us to equate with the word democracy. Instead of having direct say in our governance, we are instead allowed to elect a representative to speak for us in some governing body. In a five-year election cycle, this effectively gives us one day out of 1,826 to exercise our democratic rights, leaving the elected representatives to play power games for most of the remaining 1,825 days.[ref]They do have to pretend like they’re doing no such thing, especially in election season.[/ref]

None of this is to advocate for a withdrawal from politics proper. Quite the contrary, we all need to rouse from the slumber of believing that voting once every 5 years is being “politically responsible.” We must be engaged in our communities, believing that we have a right to have a say in how we are governed even though the system doesn’t reflect that reality. Politics, after all, is too important to leave to the professionals.

Finally, as a Christian, I find it doubly distressing that so many of my brothers and sisters buy into the “vote responsibly” bullshit flung about during election season. We worship a failed political revolutionary executed as a state criminal. They would have painted “terrorist” on the sign above Jesus’ head if they used today’s language, for he relativized everything about power and authority in the name of the kingdom of God. If we walked around saying we only obeyed “the nation of God” like he did, folks would start getting mighty suspicious.

It was precisely this politically subversive language that got early Christians in hot water. In calling Jesus Lord, they were saying that Caesar was not. They held themselves under the law of Christ, which is to say under the law of love for God and neighbour, which led them to political acts such as the rescue of infants left exposed to die and care for widows and orphans. The law of love in God’s kingdom always seeks out those ignored and abused by the “legitimate” powers of the day.

This is what God’s politics looks like: love, especially the seemingly irresponsible love of the poor and the marginalized. Voting for one chump or another every few years is all fine and well, but it has nearly nothing to do with responsibility. Unless political responsibility takes on the face of our neighbour, it means nothing at all.

Big is Bad

Big is bad, but small isn’t necessarily beautiful. It’s just that everywhere I look, I can’t see the end of what I’m seeing. Everything is too big and it should be smaller.

Perhaps the easiest place to make this case is in national electoral politics, which we in Canada recently sleepwalked through (a blessed brevity compared to the two year, three ring circus recently completed in USAmerica). National political elections aren’t a sideshow simply because of the mass media, but because the whole affair is so distressingly beyond the scale of human comprehension. Candidates are trying to represent people who will never have a chance of getting to know their character (or probable lack thereof), integrity, and the impact that their views will have on voters.

An even more obvious example of out-of-human-control-largeness (monstrous might be a suitable adjective) is the economy. That we even call it “The Economy,” is a telltale sign that we’re dealing with something so abstracted from reality that we have no other recourse than to name something that is no-thing with an abstract noun. “The Economy” is so big that even the so-called experts don’t have a damned idea what’s going on, other than a vague notion that it has demands which must be propitiated. A cursory examination of what the economic “experts” had to say before and after the recent financial system meltdown reveals that they’re all just pissing into the wind.

National politics and trans-national economics are merely two of the most obviously too-big things in a world rife with oversized everything. For instance, my city recently closed many community centres in favour of fewer mega-community centres. How exactly the “community” is served by this remains a mystery. Or take the education system, where classrooms and schools enlarge every year. Convergence, mergers and synergy are pursued in acquiescence to that insatiable capitalistic idol called “efficiency.” Efficiency is of course a euphemism for “taking away meaningful work from decent people so as to pad the bottom lines of modern capitalistic oligarchs.” It is difficult to imagine what this capitalist logic might have to do with education as such, since education is—quite literally—priceless.

When things are too big, it’s impossible for an ordinary person to reasonably understand the effects of a vote for a certain person or the lineage of a consumer product. Largeness is therefore the enemy of anyone trying to live a life of virtue, morality and integrity. It is not accidental that the cult of moral relativism has arisen in a time such as this, because it is quite factually impossible in the context of The Big to take morally considered action.

I am fully cognizant of the irony of this anti-Big jeremiad’s dissemination through that torrent of babel known as the World Wide Web. If there is anything that has proven to big for anyone to manage—much to the consternation of the RIAA and Chinese communism—it is this decentralized data deluge called the Internet. I think that the Internet is neither messiah nor anti-Christ, but I also think that we would be fine without it. Its chief benefits appear to be in the decentralization of power and influence away from other traditional Big Powers, but this means that it, too, has the potential to create its own outsized oligarchies. Why else would we need a OLPC? Or a watchdog over Google?

We’ve had more than enough incredulity towards big narratives (and not nearly enough unsexy work with small, local projects), so let us not reside in the abstract. Let us return to the second sentence in this essay: everything is too big and it should be smaller. This is a simple maxim with profound implications, many of which are complex. This is not a project for the timid, but rather for those willing to engage in a life of increased difficulty. To live small is to be vulnerable, weak, and possibly exploited. These are the meek, poor in spirit and persecuted spoken of by Jesus in his oft-ignored beatitudes. But to live small also means severing your reliance on the Big System, something that looks increasingly prudent in economic times such as these.

The problem with talking about big is knowing where to stop, because the topic could stretch on forever. Lest this essay stretch on ad infinitum, I shall simply bring it to a close with a counter-intuitive maxim: think small.